Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Irrelevant Church
distributed 9/6/02 - ©2002

I'm deeply concerned about the health of the Christian church in the US.

My own hunches and experiences point to an institution that is largely disconnected from the issues, needs and hurts of the world. I have felt that the church has been distressingly silent in terms of offering prophetic commentary and moral insight for the largest problems we face. In matters of public policy and personal transformation most churches are irrelevant.

My very subjective impressions have just received objective grounding in a set of poll data released this week. A survey by the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California, examined what churches have done to address last September's terrorist attacks and found surprisingly little response by houses of faith. The commentary in their press release contains the following statements:

Researcher George Barna professed his amazement at the outcomes. "I was among those who fully expected to see an intense spiritual reaction to the terrorist attacks. The fact that we saw no lasting impact from the most significant act of war against our country on our own soil says something about the spiritual complacency of the American public."

The researcher also commented on the relatively high ratings given by the public to their church's handling of the attacks. "Most church-goers were not sure what to expect from their church and thus accepted the relative silence on the issues as the appropriate reaction," he explained. "There was a huge degree of openness to leadership during the weeks just after the attacks. In the end, the data suggest that the President provided the greatest degree of moral and political leadership; churches provided emotional stability for people by giving them a comfortable and calming local presence; and family relationships delivered the continuity needed during the time of stress."

Barna also indicated that even after the initial shock of the attacks, our leaders have focused on the restoration of pre-attack ways of being. "None of the agents of influence seemed bent on seizing the attacks as a teaching moment or as a time to ignite deeper self-examination among Americans. For the most part, our response to the attacks has been to restore continuity and comfort as quickly as possible, without much energy devoted to moral, spiritual or emotional growth."

(The Barna website is at The quoted sections of the press release are found in the section headed "Life goes on".)

It is a travesty when churches limit their role to providing emotional stability for people through a comfortable and calming presence. It is an embarrassment when church people in the US see the President -- instead of the clergy and teachers of the church -- as the foremost provider of moral leadership.

What Barna describes is not the sort of powerful, decisive, courageous and controversial role for the church that is presented in scripture. It is not what we celebrate when we look back to the church's best historical moments.

It is easy to assert that the clergy have abandoned their station as influential leaders in the community. While some pastors have consciously turned away from the conflict inherent in addressing difficult issues, many others have been nurtured into a view of the church that does not include speaking out on public issues, even from a theological context.

The modern American church has so thoroughly separated the pastoral and prophetic roles that many clergy cannot conceive of bringing elements of both into their ministry.

But a huge part of the blame for the state of the church must fall to the laity. Their demands and expectations for the church have helped to shape our dismal situation. Canadian pastor Freda Moosehunter vividly expressed the sentiments of many in the pew (and on the governing board):

I would like to buy three dollars' worth of God, please. Not enough to explore my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don't want enough God to make me love an Indian or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation. I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy three dollars' worth of God please.

+     +     +     +     +

These are dangerous and distressing days. Among a vast array of issues, two stand out from the recent headlines. The US is rejecting the practical and moral wisdom of the rest of the world as it moves toward war with Iraq. The nations of the world have failed to come to meaningful agreements for sustainable development at the recent summit in Johannesburg, and the US hindered progress toward many details of the negotiations.

With rare exception, US churches at all levels have been silent about these matters that have dominated the news media, and have profound implications for all people.

I pray that God's spirit will blow a reviving wind of change through the church. I pray that we may reclaim our appropriate place as moral and spiritual leaders in this society.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Eco-Justice Ministries   *   400 S Williams St, Denver, CO   80209   *   Home Page:
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
To contact a representative of the agency by e-mail, please use the contact form